A few months ago I watched a British chat show similar to The Tonight Show or David Letterman. One of the guests was journalist Andrew Marr. He was a BBC political news correspondent for many years, reporting live from 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minster’s residence, on a daily basis. Last year he made a TV series about the history of Britain since the Second World War.
During the interview I saw, Marr said that 60 years ago people were much more interested in politics than they are today and that was certainly my impression growing up. After the War, people wanted change and voted in a Labour Party (socialist) government that laid the foundations of the Welfare State that shaped the life of millions of people like me. In the next election, in 1951, the Tories (Conservative Party) were returned to power. They presided over the birth of consumerism and by 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was able to make his now legendary remark “You’ve never had it so good.”
The country progressed, albeit in fits and starts, over the decades that followed. The greatest transformation took place in the Eighties, under Thatcher. The country I visited in 1994, after an absence of 13 years, was unrecognizable to me.
When Marr was asked to explain the change that had taken place since the War, he said it had been a question of “the defeat of politics by shopping.” I was in London around the time of 9/11 and was astonished when, a week after the attacks, Tony Blair appeared on TV to urge the public to continue spending money. The economic system was faltering because people were too worried to go out and shop.
I found Marr’s comment both illuminating and depressing. Could the great British public have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage?